New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 16 — Back to Rangoon—the Last Phase
Back to Rangoon—the Last Phase
THE Allied armies were now everywhere on the offensive, fighting their way back into those regions of Burma from which they had been driven in the dark days of 1942. The recopening of overland communications with China was still their main objective, but to this another had recently been added, namely ‘the destruction or expulsion of all Japanese forces in Burma.’ And at long last, after years of frustration and disappointment, both these tasks now seemed possible of early fulfilment. For Japanese resistance was becoming noticeably weaker; their air power had withered away and the army, although it continued to make a tenacious stand on a number of occasions, was no longer capable of dealing with the strong formations which now opposed it.
The Allied air forces were giving powerful support at every stage of the advance; the achievements of their transport squadrons in particular continued to be nothing short of the spectacular. Indeed, as the Supreme Commander points out in his despatch, ‘air operations formed the background and the unceasing accompaniment to the land fighting. Land advances depended for their success on air protection from enemy interference. In most cases the air forces provided the spearhead of the attack; during the operations they fought the enemy in the air and harried him on the ground, and after the battle they continued to attack his communications and bases and to weaken his fighting organisation. It will not be possible to form an authentic overall picture of the land/air campaign if this is not borne in mind.’
1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Guy Garrod, GBE, KCB, MC, DFC, Legion of Merit (US), Order of Cloud and Banner (Ch), Order of George I (Gk); born London, 13 Apr 1891; served Leicestershire Regiment, 1914–15; joined RFC 1915; Air Member for Training, Air Council 1940–43; Deputy AOC-in-C, India, 1943; Deputy Allied Air C-in-C, SE Asia, 1943–45; C-in-C RAF, Mediterranean and Middle East, 1945.
AIR SUPPLY IN BURMA
(June 1944 to April 1945)
Note: In addition to the above supplies, some 515,000 personnel were carried and over 125,000 casualties evacuated by air during this period.
Source: Appendix II of Despatch on Air Operations, June 1944-May 1945, by Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park.
1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, KCB, DSO, Order of Polonia Restituta (Pol), Order of Kutuzov (USSR), Legion of Merit (US); born Mobberley, Cheshire, 11Jul 1892; joined Lancashire Fusiliers, 1914; seconded RFC 1916 and RAF 1918; permanent commission RAF, 1919; AOC No. 12 Fighter Group, 1937–40; AOC No. 11 Fighter Group, 1940–42; AOC-in-C, Fighter Command, 1942–43; AOC-in-C, AEAF, 1943–44; missing 14 Nov 1944 and death presumed.
In Burma, as in Britain, Egypt and Malta, Park showed himself a forceful and resolute leader. Under his direction air supply and air support in Burma reached their peak, and this was done by imaginative planning and by resource, energy and courage in execution. Park's responsibilities were heavy and his forces spread over a wide area, but it was not long before his lean figure and smiling face were familiar to many of the men serving under him, by whom he was soon regarded with great affection. ‘Sir Keith,’ writes an RAF squadron commander, ‘would come over to us at dispersal and squat down with a muster of pilots around him. Within a few minutes he would be freely discussing the minutest details of an operation and displaying an uncanny understanding of our problems. At the same time everybody could ventilate their pet grouch with a sure feeling that if it was possible something would be done to remedy the matter.’
Two other New Zealanders, both of whom had already achieved distinction in the Royal Air Force, held senior posts in South-east Asia during the closing stages of the campaign. One was Air Vice- Marshal Jarman,1 who was in control of No. 229 Group, RAF, which was concerned with air transport and ferrying aircraft behind the operational area. The other was Group Captain H. N. G. Isherwood.2 He was in charge of a transport wing headquarters that was responsible for one-third of all supplies going forward by air to 15 Corps in Arakan and to Fourteenth Army in central Burma.
1 Air Vice-Marshal G. T. Jarman, DSO, DFC; RAF; born Ashburton, 20 Feb 1906; joined RAF 1930; permanent commission 1936; CGI, No. 2 FTS, 1939–40; commanded No. 77 Sqdn, 1940–41; No. 76 Sqdn, 1941; No. 19 OTU, 1941–43; RAF Station, Wigtown, 1943; DCAS, RNZAF, 1943–44; AOC No. 229 Group, ACSEA, 1945.
2 Group Captain H. N. G. Isherwood, DFC, AFC, Order of Lenin (USSR); born Petone, 13 Jul 1905; served with NZ Mtd Rifles, 1924–30; joined RAF 1930; permanent commission 1936; flying duties, Aeronautical and Armament Experimental Establishment, 1936–41; Sector Commander, No. 9 Fighter Group, 1941; Controller, HQ No. 9 Fighter Group, 1941; commanded No. 151 Hurricane Wing in Russia, 1941; commanded RAF Stations, Church Stanton, Valley andWoodvale, 1942–44; RAF Station, Mauripur, India, 1944–45; commanded No. 342 Wing, SE Asia, 1945; killed in aircraft accident, 24 Apr 1950.
Nine New Zealanders commanded RAF squadrons operating in South-east Asia Command during 1945. Wing Commander A. H. Harding, a veteran of Coastal Command and the Middle East, was in charge of a transport squadron and Wing Commander N. McClelland continued in control of Catalina flying-boats. Wing Commander K. J. Newman led the RAF squadron of photo-reconnaissance Mosquitos in its final operations, while Beaufighters were controlled by Squadron Leader A. E. Browne.3 The others were Squadron Leader J. M. Cranstone, who led Thunderbolt fighters, and Squadron Leaders Humphreys,4 B. T. Shannon, G. S. Sharp and R. E. Stout, each commanding Hurricane squadrons. The veteran Hurricane fighter-bomber which had already proved its worth in Burma was still a most exact weapon in the hands of the experienced pilots now flying it, and they enjoyed an immense reputation for their accurate pinpointing of targets within a comparatively few yards of our own positions.
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The possibility that Rangoon might be reached by an army travelling overland and supplied by air had not, as yet, been given serious consideration by the Allied leaders. At the Quebec conference a few months previously when the reconquest of Burma was discussed, the general feeling was that supply difficulties would prevent our land forces from occupying southern Burma before the monsoon began in the following May. Elaborate plans and preparations had therefore been made for a series of airborne assaults to capture key points and for a large-scale amphibious operation, known as dracula, to be directed against Rangoon from the south.
But the whole conception of Burma campaigning had now been transfigured by air power. In central Burma, in the northern area and in Arakan, air supply had given the ground forces a degree of mobility which enabled them to exploit the slightest advantage offered by weakening enemy resistance. Simultaneously the growing weight of the close-support squadrons helped these advances to grow greater and more frequent so that even distant Rangoon became possible of early attainment by Fourteenth Army.
February 1945 was the month of decision. Our land forces had by then made such progress that it was decided to shelve the earlier plans, and at an historic Calcutta Conference Park agreed that his Air Command would accept the task of supplying and supporting the Fourteenth Army on an overland advance to Rangoon. This was an immense undertaking for it involved the greatest air supply operation of the war—the sustaining of an army of more than 300,000 men fighting in a country which in many respects was most unfavourable for air operations. Moreover, the penalty of failure would be severe. If the port of Rangoon was not reached before the monsoon broke three months hence, then the transport squadrons would have to continue this unprecedented charge through five months of rain.
1 Slim, Defeat into Victory, p. 482: ‘We had, in fact, been making plans quietly at Fourteenth Army Headquarters for the capture of Rangoon since the previous July, and in November, when our bridges over the Chindwin were either achieved or about to be achieved, we settled down to serious planning.’
Fighters and bombers of RAF No. 221 Group1 were active in close support. As well as attacking enemy troops and positions, they bombed bridges, installations, headquarters and communication centres far and wide behind the Japanese lines. Frequent attacks were also made on enemy airfields to prevent the Japanese air force from interfering with our advance.
Many units were now moving forward from Assam and a transfer of squadrons, together with their ground staff and control centres, was far from easy. The majority were moved by air, but some had to use the indifferent roads of central and southern Burma which were then crowded with mechanised transport and armoured vehicles. Then, as the close-support squadrons moved down into southern Burma, long-range squadrons moved forward from northern Burma and Assam into the Shwebo and Meiktila area. All these moves made administration more difficult, especially during April when no fewer than eighty units were moved forward; by the end of that month No. 221 Group was administering squadrons scattered over 600 miles from northern Assam to southern Burma.
1 No. 221 Group, which provided the main close air support for Fourteenth Army, consisted at this time of six squadrons of Hurricanes and three squadrons of Thunderbolts for close support; four squadrons of Spitfires for defence; three squadrons of Beaufighters and Mosquitos for long-range tactical work; two squadrons of Hurricanes for reconnaissance work; a detachment of night-fighting Beaufighters and a detachment of Spitfires for photographic reconnaissance.
During April, as the Fourteenth Army continued its advance southwards, the supporting air squadrons redoubled their efforts, greatly helped by the work of airfield engineers who marched with our main spearheads, levelling and repairing captured airstrips with speed. The Japanese Army Command was now losing touch with the realities of the situation, and to add to its confusion enemy field headquarters were bombed wherever they could be found; as a result there were instances of army commanders being unaware of the location of their units and of units being lost and without orders. At the same time our bombers began the systematic destruction of supplies piled by the Japanese in Rangoon. Of some 1700 well dispersed storage units, more than half went up in flames. Railway yards, rolling stock, radar and gun emplacements, airfields, bridges and enemy camps all received the impact of air bombing; the Japanese headquarters in Rangoon was blown up and 400 killed; the river was mined by RAF Liberators, preventing its use except for the smallest craft. Meanwhile British and American transport aircraft continued to bring forward their daily loads of food, ammunition and petrol. The tonnage carried now reached an all-time record.
Thus supported and sustained from the air, British troops had, by the end of April, reached the outskirts of Pegu, where the giant figure of Buddha gazed with his strange smile on the efforts of those who scurried and fought about his feet. Our advanced units were now less than fifty miles from Rangoon, and in the face of this threat the Japanese withdrew completely from the city and port they had held so long. A few days later, on 2 May, an RAF pilot on reconnaissance over Rangoon, perceiving no sign of the enemy on the airfield at Mingaladon, decided to land. He then entered the city and took formal possession on behalf of the Allied forces. And it was fitting that the vital part played by air power in the campaign should be rounded off by the token occupation of Rangoon by the Royal Air Force.
The first troops to reach the city arrived the following evening. They came, however, from the south. For a few weeks earlier, page 363 Mountbatten and his overall land commander, General Oliver Leese, fearful that the Fourteenth Army would not reach Rangoon before the monsoon broke, had decided to launch a modified Operation dracula. Supported by RAF No. 224 Group from its Arakan base, the operation began on 1 May with the dropping of a parachute battalion and the landing of 26 Indian Division to the south of the city. But these troops did not have to fight and their advance into Rangoon was more of the nature of a triumphal procession than an assault in force.
Technically, Fourteenth Army, whose forward units were still thirty miles to the north on the Pegu road, had lost the race to Rangoon. Nevertheless it was most certainly its drive, helped by the air force, which really won the battle. But it was a near thing. For torrential rain now began to fall as the full fury of the monsoon burst over southern Burma.
Japanese military power in Burma was now almost completely broken. For while the Fourteenth Army had been driving south towards Rangoon, operations had continued successfully on the other fronts. In the northern area, Lashio had been captured by the Chinese and the enemy driven back into the Chan States. Simultaneously in the Arakan 15 British Corps, supported by RAF No. 221 Group, had driven the Japanese from their last stronghold at Taungup.
One more battle, however, had yet to be fought before Burma was entirely free. It was known as the Battle of the Sittang Bend. In their lightning thrust south our armies had left large concentrations of Japanese unaccounted for, and these were now biding their time in the rain-soaked ravines of the Pegu Yomas, awaiting an opportunity to escape across the River Sittang into Thailand. They eventually decided on a mass breakout in the early part of July but found their way barred by British troops. There followed one of the bloodiest episodes of the whole campaign in which Burmese guerrillas, adequately organised at last, joined to ambush and cut to pieces hundreds of the escaping enemy.
Royal Air Force fighters and bombers took a prominent part in this Sittang battle. Thunderbolt squadrons carrying three 500 Ib bombs on each aircraft played havoc among squadrons of moving Japanese troops. Spitfires, too, each carrying one 500 Ib bomb, pursued the enemy relentlessly. Just how effective this air action became is shown in a message sent to Nos. 273 and 607 Squadrons by one guerrilla leader at the height of the battle. ‘You are killing hundreds of Japs,’ he said, ‘and your perfect co-ordination and patience in reading our page 364 crude signals is saving the lives of many thousands of defenceless civilians.’ Altogether in this final action of the Burma war the RAF flew a total of 3045 sorties and dropped over 700 tons of bombs. And this was done in appalling weather, with cloud ceiling often down to a few hundred feet and airfields turned into muddy lakes by the monsoon storms.
It was at the Sittang River three years earlier that the British Army had suffered a heavy defeat. Now the wheel had turned full circle. The Japanese were out of Burma at a cost of 100,000 dead, not counting the unnumbered skeletons in the inhospitable jungle.
An outstanding feature of the final campaign in Burma was that our armies advanced under cover of almost complete Allied air supremacy. This fact was at once evident to all who flew over the battlefields and noted on the enemy side little sign of activity, but saw behind the British front long lines of transport moving in uncamouflaged safety, supply dropping parachutes in use as tents and all the paraphernalia of war left lying in full view by troops who had come to regard our air supremacy as part of the nature of things in Burma. But this was not so and, until the end, a steady effort was required in order to keep the Japanese Air Force subdued. This effort consisted largely of Spitfire patrols over forward areas and attacks on enemy airfields by long-range Mustangs. A remarkable feat was the destruction of thirty-one Japanese machines on the airfield at Don Muang, near Bangkok, by forty American Mustangs in March 1945. This was accomplished after a flight of some 780 miles from the nearest base—a mission which in Europe would have corresponded to a raid on Vienna by single-engined fighters based on London.
It is unnecessary to record in detail the enormous advantages accruing to our ground forces as a result of this Allied dominance of the Burma air. It is, however, worth pausing to consider what would have happened had the enemy been allowed unrestricted use of the sky. The air supply on which the whole land campaign hinged would have been impossible; the attrition rate of our close-support squadrons which worked with accuracy and effect would have been prohibitive and the disruption caused by our strategic bombers to the enemy's communications far to the rear could not have been such as to have materially influenced the battle.
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New Zealanders shared in all phases of the air operations. Those who flew the transport Dakotas worked extremely hard. In February page 365 1945, for example, Warrant Officer Stent1 of No. 117 Squadron achieved the unusual total of 192 hours' flying despite being grounded for four days by bad weather. Remarkably good work as Dakota pilots was also done during this period by Flight Lieutenant Hamilton2 and Warrant Officer Yates3 of No. 62 Squadron, by Warrant Officer Gifford4 of No. 117 Squadron, and by Warrant Officer Deegan,5 Flight Sergeants Anderson6 and Mackenzie7 of No. 238 Squadron.
During the crucial months while the Allied advance through central Burma was in progress the transport crews usually operated in good weather. It was, however, a different story after the arrival of the monsoon in May. The task of supplying the Army then became, as Group Captain Isherwood puts it, ‘more dangerous than any other type of operation.’ ‘The crews,’ he says, ‘would go out two or three times daily in violent storms, frequently returning to find their own airfields flooded. Diversion was useless as all fields were flooded together so that hazardous landings in a sea of mud were a frequent experience.’
Flight Lieutenant Hamilton and his crew, however, were less fortunate. While returning through a storm one day in July, their machine crashed near Akyab and all perished. No message was received from the aircraft but another pilot saw it spinning out of low cloud, almost certainly after instruments had failed while in the cumulo-nimbus turbulence.
The weather was not the only difficulty with which the transport squadrons had to contend. For the ground organisation both of the Army and the RAF, although it improved considerably towards the end, was by no means wholly efficient. For one thing there was a certain tardiness in providing forward airfields, both for the landing of Dakotas and for the operation of fighters to protect them. Depots were not always kept fully stocked by the Army ‘Q’ staff, for there were never enough lorries either in the rear or forward areas. And since it was the practice to keep each main type of commodity at separate airfields, the supply crews had to fly from field to field if they were to carry a mixed freight. Again, at forward airfields, controllers often kept the transport Dakotas circling while tactical aircraft took off on routine operations, and until late in the campaign very little provision was made to feed and rest the crews of the supply aircraft.
As the Army advanced southwards transport crews were also subjected to the unnecessary strain of longer and longer flights from bases in India. This was because of the delay in restoring the airfields at Akyab and Ramree after their capture in order to shorten the air supply route to central Burma. Ramree Island was occupied towards the end of January 1945, but not until mid-April were its airfields in use for transport operations. At Akyab, captured several weeks earlier, these were not in full progress until 1 April. ‘Had it not been for continual pressure by the Air Command,’ writes Sir Keith Park in his despatch, ‘it is probable that the development of these bases would have lagged interminably and the supply of forces in central and southern Burma have been insufficient to exploit the victories around Mandalay. It is difficult to describe the urgency and frequency of the representations that were necessary to awaken the Army to the part they must play in developing an air line of communication.’
Altogether, though easy to condemn in retrospect, it is difficult not to agree with Park's conclusion that ‘the campaign in Burma would have been rendered easier had the engineering resources that were poured into less profitable projects been directed towards timely building of forward airfields, more efficient supply depots and stronger page 367 lines of communication to the air haulage centres. The Ledo Road, for example, is surely the longest white elephant in the world. Had the wealth of ability and material that went to its building been employed in strengthening the air supply system the recapture of Burma could probably have been advanced by an appreciable period.’
New Zealand fighter pilots flew Hurricanes, Spitfires, Thunderbolts, Beaufighters and Mosquitos and they operated over two main regions— the Arakan and central Burma. Spitfire pilots were employed mainly on defensive patrols to intercept sneak raids by Japanese fighters on our forward areas. The Hurricanes and Thunderbolts, on the other hand, were mainly concerned with attacking ground targets in support of the Army, but along with the Spitfires they also escorted Dakotas on their supply missions. Beaufighter and Mosquito crews ranged farther afield to bomb and strafe Japanese shipping, supply dumps and railways.
While British forces were engaged in clearing the Arakan, Thunderbolts led by Squadron Leader Cranstone and Hurricanes led by Squadron Leader Geoffrey Sharp took a prominent part in the supporting air operations. Both men proved themselves skilful leaders in attacks that had frequently to be delivered at low level and against well-defended enemy positions. The Nigerian Regiment presented Sharp with a Japanese sword in token of his squadron's co-operation. Flight Lieutenant Simpson1 of No. 67 Squadron, who had flown in the defence of Rangoon in 1942, Flight Lieutenant Jenkins,2 a flight commander with No. 5 Squadron, and Warrant Officer Craighead,3 flying Thunderbolts with No. 258 Squadron, also saw action over the Arakan.
The effectiveness of the fighter pilots' work is seen in messages received from the Army. ‘Successful air strike this morning enabled our troops to occupy feature without opposition,’ runs one signal from 26 Division, and from 82 Division came the more cryptic but equally enthusiastic: ‘Strike very successful. Many thanks. Infantry on all objectives. Vive le Sport.’ These were typical of the day-to-day operations, and to them was added General Oliver Leese's congratulations to the squadrons of No. 224 Group on ‘the wonderful support given to 15 Corps during the operations leading to the capture of Akyab.’
Akyab was, in fact, taken unopposed following sustained air action against the Japanese there. A large-scale amphibious assault had been prepared, but on the day before it was due to be launched two Hurricane pilots reported signals from the islanders that the Japanese had gone. A few hours later Akyab was ‘occupied’ by its own former judge, Wing Commander Bradley, RNZAF,1 who landed in a light aircraft and was greeted by his friend the local doctor.
Fighter pilots of No. 67 Squadron were in action over the island a few days later when six Oscar fighter-bombers attempted a surprise attack. All but one of the intruders were shot down. Flight Lieutenant Simpson accounted for two of them and Warrant Officer McQuarrie2 destroyed another. In so doing, the two New Zealanders avenged the loss of a gallant fellow countryman, Warrant Officer Horan,3 rear-gunner in an air-sea rescue Otter that was shot down by the Japanese fighters. The Otter, a slow and vulnerable machine, had been airborne when the Japanese came over. All six Oscars attacked it. Horan returned their fire, was hit in one hand but continued to operate his gun with the other. Then he was hit again and mortally wounded, but his pilot was able to beach the burning aircraft and the rest of the crew were saved. By remaining at his post to fight on against heavy odds, Horan certainly upheld the finest traditions of the service.
Fighter operations over central Burma in support of the Fourteenth Army were remarkable for their intensity and for the high degree of success achieved. When, for example, 33 Corps was attempting to cross the Irrawaddy, north of Mandalay, Hurricane squadrons moved forward to Onbauk, only a few miles from the battle, and gave decisive close support. They did similar good work against the Japanese holding out at Fort Dufferin, in Mandalay itself, but their most valuable contribution was the day-to-day ‘basha-busting’ and the attacking of enemy bunkers and trenches cleverly hidden in chaung or among trees. ‘Bombing exactly where we wanted it,’ runs a typical signal from the Army. ‘Direct hit on 105 mm. gun …. Morale effect terrific.’
Squadron Leaders J. S. Humphreys, R. E. Stout and B. T. Shannon each commanded Hurricanes thus engaged in support of the Fourteenth Army. All three men achieved fine records. Stout, for example, was now on his third tour, having commenced operations with Hurricanes during the retreat from Burma; he completed a total of 221 sorties. Some idea of the sustained effort these leaders and their pilots made in support of the Army may be gleaned from the fact that Humphreys' squadron alone flew over 1300 sorties during February and March 1945.
Another successful Hurricane pilot at this time was Flight Lieutenant J. D. McPhail, who commanded a flight in No. 20 Squadron. McPhail took part in a remarkable operation near Myinmu in mid-February. Here the enemy had concentrated most of his precious tanks and with great cunning concealed them in what appeared to be small native huts, camouflaged with the boughs of trees. One pilot, his suspicions aroused, fired his gun and ripped off the roof of one hut to reveal a tank. Other Hurricanes soon joined in and twelve tanks were quickly uncovered and destroyed. This feat brought an exuberant signal from a nearby British division. ‘Nippon Hardware Corporation has gone bust,’ it read. ‘Nice work. Tanks a million.’
Thunderbolt fighter-bomber pilots did equally good work. Flying with No. 79 Squadron was Squadron Leader Vanderpump,1 a distinguished pilot who had formerly commanded Kittyhawk and Corsair squadrons in the Pacific. He had come to Burma to study close-support tactics and it was typical of him that he should do this from the cockpit of a Thunderbolt.
New Zealand Spitfire pilots flew during this period of the campaign with Nos. 17, 152, 273 and 607 Squadrons. In the latter unit there were eight New Zealanders, and Flight Lieutenant G. W. W. Smith2 commanded one of the flights. The Spitfires played a notable part in the battle of the Sittang Bend when, in addition to ground strafing, they dropped supplies to our troops engaged in close fighting in difficult country and at the height of the monsoon.
1 Squadron Leader M. T. Vanderpump, DFC, DFC (US); born Auckland, 14 May 1920; farmer; joined RNZAF 9 Apr 1940; commanded No. 19 RNZAF Sqdn, 1944, and No. 24 RNZAF Sqdn, 1944–45; killed in aircraft accident, 2 Apr 1955.
Beaufighters operating on night intruder missions over Burma were led by Squadron Leader A. E. Browne, a former night-fighter pilot over Britain. Beaufighters also ranged far and wide over Burma by day, attacking enemy communications by road, rail, river and sea. Flying Officer Bennett1 and Warrant Officer McPherson2 both lost their lives in such operations; another pilot, Warrant Officer Osboldstone,3 was shot down behind the enemy lines but was uninjured; he was taken prisoner but was fortunate enough to be sent to Rangoon, where he was released when that city was captured shortly afterwards.
Mention must also be made of the work of the men who flew Mosquito light-bombers. Squadron Leader I. A. Sutherland, for example, commanded a flight in No. 110 Squadron and made many attacks against long-range targets. He was lost only a few weeks before the end, his burnt-out aircraft being found in the foothills near Magwe. Flight Lieutenant Buchanan,4 who had previously completed a tour of operations with Hudsons at Guadalcanal, suffered a similar fate after a very successful period with No. 110 Squadron.
Another Mosquito pilot, Flight Lieutenant Emeny5 of No. 45 Mosquito Squadron, survived a harrowing experience. On 9 November 1944, he took off with six other Mosquitos to attack Meiktila airfield. Over the target the Mosquitos met determined opposition from both fighters and flak. Emeny's aircraft was hit, burst into flames and crashed with such force that he and his navigator were reported ‘missing believed killed’. But both men somehow managed to hack their way out of the wreckage and, although injured and suffering from burns, they crawled to a native village near Meiktila. Here they were robbed by Burmese and then betrayed to the Japanese. The two airmen were taken to an army post, where they were kept standing for four nights and three days without food in an unsuccessful effort to make them divulge information. They were then removed to Rangoon jail. Emeny had severe burns about the head and severe skin injuries to one leg, but the Japanese gave him no medical attention and he was forced to doctor himself with his first-aid kit. Emeny, who in civilian life had had some experience of veterinary work, later assisted in the medical care of prisoners, who received little, if any, such attention from the Japanese.
Liberator heavy bombers played an important part in the final stages of the campaign. Japanese supply routes into Burma, especially the Bangkok-Moulmein railway, remained a primary target and continued to receive repeated attacks by day as well as by night. Mines were also laid in enemy waters, a task in which the crews of No. 160 Squadron, based on Ceylon, operated regularly; their longest sorties were to Singapore, a round trip of 3350 miles which involved twenty-one hours' flying.
During this period the Liberators were also frequently employed in close support of our ground forces. Indeed, while the Fourteenth Army was fighting its way south towards Rangoon, over half the heavy bomber missions were directed against targets on or near the battlefront. These included storage dumps near the Japanese railhead at Madaya and the district of Yenangyaung and, later on, villages lying in the path of our troops moving against Meiktila. During the assault on Mandalay, the Liberators joined in to smash Japanese strongpoints and kill about a thousand of the enemy. ‘We got a great kick out of helping the Army right on the spot,’ writes Flying Officer J. A. Wilkinson, who flew as wireless operator with the Commanding Officer of No. 99 Squadron. ‘Much of our work took us right into Siam, hitting at Japanese communications but it had not the same thrill as we experienced in close support.’
Some forty New Zealanders—pilots, navigators, wireless operators and air gunners—flew RAF Liberators over Burma during 1945. Of the pilots the work of Flying Officer ‘Johnny’ Haycock was more or less typical. Operating first with No. 99 and then with No. 159 Squadron, he took part in raids on targets in the Arakan, in central Burma, Bangkok and Rangoon. He had a narrow escape on one daylight raid against Rangoon. Caught in a cone of intense flak, his Liberator was repeatedly hit; rudder and elevator controls were badly damaged and the rear-gunner seriously wounded. Pulling out of the resulting dive, Haycock managed to retain control while his flight engineer repaired the damaged cables with cord. When he landed back at base four hours later over 150 holes were counted in the aircraft. It did not fly again.
Warrant Officer Stewart,3 a rear-gunner with No. 99 Squadron, was probably the oldest member of aircrew in Burma. He was thirty-seven years of age, almost double that of most air gunners. In the early days of the war he had been turned down for the Army because he had lost two fingers and for the Air Force because he was married. Then the RNZAF announced that it would take married men. Stewart enlisted at once, trained in Canada and finally arrived in India in August 1943, where he subsequently flew over 220 hours on operations over Burma and Thailand as an air gunner.
Some remarkably fine work was done by the crews of the RAF's two photographic reconnaissance squadrons during 1945. Indeed, not even in Europe were individual sorties surpassed in daring and execution. Bangkok, in distant Thailand, was regularly photographed by the Mosquitos of No. 684 Squadron, and they also provided a detailed picture of targets as far away as Sumatra, southern Malaya, Singapore and Java. Towards the end of August 1945, a Mosquito based on the Cocos Islands made a round trip over Penang and Taipang of 2600 miles in just over nine hours. Apart from the distances they flew the photo-reconnaissance pilots, perhaps more than other branches of the service, had to combat the weather in order to achieve success. More than once did Mosquitos return with torn fabric or ominous evidence of the severe climatic conditions through which they had passed. For these aircraft, in the construction of which wood and adhesives were much used, were not altogether suitable for operations in the tropics, remarkable though their performance was.
Six New Zealand pilots deserve special mention for their part in these photographic missions. They are Squadron Leaders K. J. Newman and W. M. Murray, both of whom commanded flights in No. 684 Squadron; Flight Lieutenants C. G. Andrews,4 J. Irvine and J. W. S. Clark,5 senior pilots with the same unit, and Flight Lieutenant C. E. Papps who led a flight in No. 681 Spitfire Squadron. Both Murray and Andrews had previously flown Hudsons in the South-west Pacific, while Papps had already done two tours in South-east Asia on bombers.
Several interesting incidents must be recorded. In May 1945, Squadron Leader Newman was appointed to take over command of a squadron detachment based at the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean. Before so doing he went to England to collect a Mosquito aircraft, which he flew back to India in what was then a record time of 13 hours 25 minutes. That same month, in between operations, Irvine and Andrews made a flight over Mount Everest and took what were probably the first motion pictures of the world's highest mountain.
Andrews had an unusual experience towards the very end of the campaign. While on a photographic mission over Singapore an engine failed, and rather than attempt the long flight back over the ocean he decided to land on Kallang airfield. He was met by armed Japanese, but to his surprise they offered every assistance. Andrews was motored to Changi prison camp, where the Senior British Officer was able to make arrangements for RAF ground staff to effect repairs to the Mosquito. Andrews spent the night with the prisoners. The next morning, with 150 gallons of Japanese aviation fuel in the tank, he took off and returned safely to base.
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After the fall of Burma preparations continued for the invasion of Malaya—Operation ZIPPER as it was known. To support the landings more than 500 aircraft of strategic, tactical and general reconnaissance units of the RAF were assembled at airfields in Burma, Ceylon and the Cocos Islands. At the same time the supply of arms and equipment to the underground organisation in Malaya was intensified and photographic aircraft worked hard to provide advanced information for all three services. One of their tasks was to secure detailed pictures of the proposed landing areas, and most of this was done by a detachment of four Mosquitos from the Cocos Islands under the control of Wing Commander Newman of No. 684 Squadron.
The assault, however, was never carried out; instead it became an occupation. For the Japanese homeland was already under heavy attack by American bombers from Pacific bases. Then, on 6 August, the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima; over four square miles of the city were destroyed and more than 100,000 people perished. Three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and on the 14th the Japanese accepted the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. The war in the Far East was over.
Had Operation ZIPPER proceeded as planned, there is little doubt that it would have succeeded. With our ascendancy in the air the invasion forces would have received powerful and continuous support from the outset, with a result similar to that achieved in the Normandy page 374 landings in Europe. All the same, it is worth noting that the Japanese intended to put up a stiff fight. For example, they planned to use all their remaining aircraft, including training and transport machines, as suicide aircraft against the Allied invasion. They had already had some experience in making suicide attacks during the Philippines campaign and had seen how effective they could be against concentrations of shipping and, in particular, against battleships and carriers. Nor were pilots lacking, inexperienced though many of them were. Indeed, it is important to observe that this final attack corps of suicide pilots was made up of ardent volunteers determined to proceed to their doom, elated in the thought that they were dying for their Emperor.
The actual surrender of the Japanese in South-east Asia was signed at Singapore on 12 September 1945, but before that date pilots and crews of the RAF were already engaged on the tasks of peace. They spread news of the enemy's surrender by dropping millions of leaflets on the principal towns and the known prisoner-of-war camps; they warned prisoners that they would shortly be freed; they dropped medical supplies, teams of medical officers and wireless operators whose task it was to signal the most urgent requirements of the camp in which they landed; they dropped quantities of food, clothing and other necessities, including millions of tablets of atebrin for use against malaria; and finally, in what has been described as one of the greatest mercy missions of the war, they brought out many thousands of prisoners from Malaya, Thailand, French Indo-China, Sumatra and Java.
New Zealand crews shared in these tasks, which were carried out in the main by Liberators from bases in Bengal, Ceylon, and the Cocos Islands, by Dakotas flying from Rangoon and by Sunderland flying-boats from the Cocos Islands. In the first week of September, the Dakotas alone dropped or landed over 400 tons of stores and brought back 4000 prisoners of war; the second week they delivered 600 tons and brought back another 3700 men. By the middle of the month, 9000 prisoners had been flown from Bangkok to Rangoon, most of whom, gaunt and emaciated, were survivors from the ordeal of working on the notorious Burma-Thailand railway.
To achieve these results crews worked extremely hard, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. Many of their flights were equivalent to an Atlantic crossing, and such great distances and the adverse weather then prevalent were not easily overcome. But they completed their mission—a mission which speeded the reunion of thousands of men, who had suffered much at the hands of the enemy, with their waiting families in Britain, in the Dominions and, indeed, in Holland. Its successful accomplishment was a fitting conclusion to the part which the Royal Air Force had played during the long campaign in South-east Asia.